Will crew chief Steve Letarte be able to get Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in victory lane at Talladega this Sunday for the first time in nearly 10 years? (Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Talladega: Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally break 10-year winless streak at the track he used to dominate?

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As hard as it may seem to believe, it’s been nearly 10 years since Dale Earnhardt Jr., last won a race at Talladega Superspeedway.

That’s 10 years at a track where Junior once dominated so much that many of his fans started calling NASCAR’s largest oval “The House that Junior Built” (even though his father won 10 times there in his own career).

The younger Earnhardt won five of his first 10 starts at the massive and sprawling 2.66-mile layout at Talladega, including four wins in a row (fall 2001 through spring 2003, as well as fall 2004).

Junior was essentially the Jimmie Johnson of his day in the way he dominated at Talladega. It wasn’t just a track, it was HIS track.

It got to the point where the majority of fans that attended every Cup race there were decked out in some kind of red-and-white Junior regalia, be it a ball cap, t-shirt, jacket or similar, all proudly touting the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet and the team he drove for, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

While toasting him with a Budweiser, of course!

But since his last win there in 2004, it seems like good fortune has turned its back on Junior.

In the 18 races since then, Earnhardt has managed just three top-five finishes (including two runner-ups) and two other top-10 showings.

That’s it.

In the 13 other starts he finished 20th or worst eight times, including recording four of his five career DNFs there.

What’s happened to Junior? Why can’t he go back to the way he used to be at ‘Dega, without question the most dominating driver there from 2001 through 2005 and when the now-defunct DEI was the crème de la crème of restrictor plate racing.

But it wasn’t all about Junior, either, at DEI.

During that same five-year period, Michael Waltrip earned all four of his career Cup wins (in 775 career starts). Three came at Daytona (including two in the Daytona 500 – with his first coming in the tragic 2001 race in which Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash while trying to protect Waltrip’s and Junior’s 1-2 finish) and the other win occurred at Talladega.

The common denominator between Waltrip and Junior: 11 of their 12 combined wins came on plate tracks while both drove for DEI – and those 11 wins came in a span of four seasons (2001-04).

Add in the winless-yet-still-productive 2005 season and the former teammates also combined for five runner-up finishes and four third-place showings in those five seasons, for a total of 20 races between them.

All-told, Junior has eight wins on plate tracks, five at Talladega and three at Daytona.

So why has Junior struggled at plate tracks since moving from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008? How is it that he’s managed just one plate track win (this year’s season-opening Daytona 500) since 2004?

Or, looking at the glass half-full, with his win at Daytona two months ago, is Junior poised to go off on another DEI-like plate track winning run with another triumph this Sunday in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega?

If he were to do so, it would make Junior the second driver (Joey Logano did so with his second win of 2014 this past Saturday at Richmond) to cement his entry into this year’s expanded and revised Chase for the Sprint Cup.

When Junior moved to HMS, predictions and expectations were both high. He had uncanny resources and something that he never had at DEI: an organization with a history of Cup championships.

At the time Junior changed his Cup address, HMS had seven championships to its credit. Today, it has 11.

If Earnhardt were to win Sunday’s race, he may finally be able to finish what he started way back in 2001 when he won his first plate race: win again at ‘Dega and end the season with his first Cup championship, as well.

He’s long overdue for both.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IMSA: Landy, Boehm score first career CTSC poles at VIR

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Landy/Ecklin. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Sebastian Landy (GS) and Kevin Boehm (ST) won their first career poles for the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Oak Tree Grand Prix at VIRginia International Raceway; the latest two-hour, 30-minute race takes place on Saturday.

Landy, a veteran of IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama and Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup action, makes his GS class debut and promptly stuck the No. 99 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage he’ll share with Rob Ecklin on the GS pole, with a best time of 1:56.929 on the 3.27-mile road course.

“[Track experience] helped a little bit but I have to thank everyone at Automatic Racing,” the local driver out of Great Falls, Va. told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam. “I’ve always wanted to race in GS. It’s a great day to start on pole for your first race. If I wasn’t as sloppy as I was, there could have been more!”

Danny Burkett starts the No. 33 CJ Wilson Racing Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport he shares with Marc Miller in second, with the pair of Ford Shelby GT350R-Cs from Multimatic Motorsports and Compass360 Racing (the latter repaired after its Road America accident) on Row 2.

Honda has a 1-3 start in the ST class with Columbus, Ohio’s Boehm taking the No. 92 HART Honda Civic Si to the top spot at 2:04.660. He’ll share that car with Cameron Lawrence while the team’s No. 93 car, qualified by Chad Gilsinger who shares with Ryan Eversley, will start from third.

The No. 84 Bimmerworld BMW 328i (James Clay, Tyler Cooke) slots in-between the pair.

Qualifying results are linked here.

The second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice of the day at a hot VIR was less eventful than the morning session when the roof popped off the No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM of Dirk Werner.

Corvette Racing came to the fore in second practice with the No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen top of the charts in GT Le Mans and overall. In GT Daytona, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Madison Snow and Bryan Sellers) was quickest one.

Practice results from the day are linked below.

Practice 1
Practice 2

Stewards confirm Alonso, Ericsson grid drops for Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 race stewards at Spa have confirmed that Fernando Alonso and Marcus Ericsson will join Lewis Hamilton in taking a grid drop for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Following the conclusion of the summer break, teams are now beginning to get tight on their power unit component allocations for the remainder of the season.

Each car is limited to just five of each power unit component for the season, with penalties being awarded for exceeding this limit.

After being forced to make unplanned changes earlier in the season, Hamilton took two complete new power units on Friday at Spa, meaning he will almost certainly start the Belgian Grand Prix from the back of the grid with a 30-place drop.

Hamilton won’t be the only driver to drop back, though. The FIA stewards confirmed on Friday that both Alonso and Ericsson had also been forced to make changes, resulting in penalties for both drivers.

Alonso has a 35-place grid penalty looming over him after taking a whole new power unit. The Spaniard was already on the limit of five of each component heading to Spa, making the penalty more severe than Hamilton’s.

Ericsson has taken a new turbocharger, his sixth, meaning he receives a 10-place grid penalty. For each of the remaining ‘sixth’ elements the Sauber driver takes over the rest of the season, he will drop a further five places.

Qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix will settle matters at the front of the grid, but at the rear, it will very much be a case of ‘wait and see’ once all of the penalties are confirmed on Sunday morning.

You can watch qualifying from Spa live on the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

Button ‘almost there’ on deciding Formula 1 future

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda sits in his car in the garage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Jenson Button says he is “almost there” on deciding his future in Formula 1 as McLaren continues to deliberate its driver line-up for 2017.

Button is the most experienced driver currently racing in F1, and has been with McLaren since 2010.

Fernando Alonso is set to remain with McLaren for next season, but the team is yet to decide whether it will retain Button or promote junior driver Stoffel Vandoorne into a full-time seat.

Button has been linked with a return to Williams – the team he made his F1 debut with in 2000 – should McLaren drop him.

The 2009 F1 world champion is yet to decide whether or not he will continue in F1 next year, but feels he is close to a decision.

“I am almost there with my thought process and you will hear about it soon. I can’t put a timescale on it, but it will be soon enough,” Button told Press Association.

“I did think about it lot [over the summer]. I didn’t have a lot of time to lie on a sun-lounger and think about it to be fair.

“I was busy, but yes, of course, I thought about it.”

Button’s last race win came at the end of 2012 with McLaren, and has not finished on the podium since the start of 2014 thanks to difficulties with the team’s Honda engine last year.

Although McLaren is on the rise, Button stressed that he wants to be in a car that is capable of battling at the front of the pack in 2017.

“I have always said that if I feel like I can be in a car that is fighting for wins I will definitely stay. I think any racing driver would,” Button said.

“But if I am not and I feel like I am not, there is nothing else for me to achieve. I will go and play darts instead.

“I can’t just sit on the beach. I will do all sorts of racing after F1 whether it is in racing cars, push bikes, or triathlons because I am a competitive person and I always want to win.

“So, that is what I want to do. Something I can fight for wins in.”

Button has been linked with a move into the FIA World Endurance Championship should he decide to call time on his F1 career, and is also likely to take up rallycross in some form, following in the footsteps of his father, John.

A roof popped off a BMW M6 GTLM in IMSA’s VIR first practice

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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First practice for this weekend’s Michelin GT Challenge, a GT Le Mans and GT Daytona-only round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship at VIRginia International Raceway is in the books.

Fastest times were set by Earl Bamber in the No. 912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR (1:43.232, GTLM and overall) and Madison Snow in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (1:45.722, GTD).

Bamber told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam, “It’s a good way to start the weekend. It’s a new surface; it already seems quicker than last year. The guys at VIR have done a great job to repave it. It’s been pretty difficult the last couple races for us.”

But the session was more notable because it featured a weird interruption, when the roof off the No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM popped off on course.

It left Dirk Werner needing to bring the car, sans the roof and rear window, into the pit lane but luckily without further damage following the inadvertent convertible debut of the car.

Werner’s befuddled co-driver, Bill Auberlen, attempted to explain the situation to Adam.

“I’m telling you… I’m dying to ask if it was cooler inside the cockpit!” Auberlen told IMSA Radio, noting how hot it is on track, as well (ambient temperatures are expected in the mid-90s with track temperatures in the 110-115 range).

“So no, we did not plan on this. This is very odd. It’s bizarre how the roof would blow off the thing.

“I went in the grass once. Couldn’t get the downshfits accomplished. Now this. Maybe we get all the troubles out now.

“But now the roof blew off? No idea how, it’s just bad luck.”

Here’s pics and a few tweets about the abnormal incident: